LACK of AMBITION
By: Noam Scheiber
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L AST THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26 , 2005 GOP REPRESENTATIVE RANDY “DUKE” CUNNINGHAM ANNOUNCED HE WON’T SEEK REELECTION TO THE SAN DIEGO--AREA SEAT HE’S HELD FOR EIGHT TERMS.
Federal investigators are currently looking into whether he sold his home to a defense contractor at a wildly inflated price in exchange for a lucrative federal contract, among other allegations.
Cunningham somehow worried this would make him a liability to the GOP “I learned in Vietnam that no one person is more important than the mission,” said the congressman, a former Navy fighter pilot.
To the untrained eye, it looks as though Cunningham is going down for using his government position to enrich himself. And, no doubt, there are some sketchy dealings involved here. In addition to his real estate coup, Cunningham also sold his 65-foot yacht to a Long Island developer for $600,000 in 2002, a 300 percent appreciation over the 1997 purchase price. Still, Cunningham’s alleged misdeeds are only the proximate cause of his demise. His real problem is a lack of ambition.
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W e’re conditioned by the congressional scandals of previous decades ------
Dan Rostenkowski’s skimming from the House kitty, Jim Wright’s dubious book income—to think that corruption, once exposed, puts you on a fast track to jail, or at least early retirement.
In fact, the only offense likely to land a politician in hot water is old small-time corruption, the kind of petty crime that’s easily understood . Engage in grand-scale, sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-style venality, and, as long as you don’t violate the letter of the law, you can prosper long after your unethical dealings become known.
I’m thinking here mainly of the current House majority leader, Tom DeLay. DeLay could have taken the path of least resistance. He could have, say, won a spot on an appropriations subcommittee known only to C-SPAN obessives and a handful of Beltway contractors, then turned around and collected kickbacks in exchange for healthy dollops of federal cash.
But DeLay was destined for bigger things. He found his calling right around the time the GOP came to power in 1995, at which point he began building a political apparatus that ranks up there with the most profitable and pernicious in history.
For Cunningham, it’s a lesson in what might have been—how to shake people down without running afoul of the law. DeLay’s first move was to browbeat the country’s 400 biggest political action committees into donating almost exclusively to the GOP rather than both parties
Step two was to pressure the biggest lobbying shops in town, which had historically been bipartisan, to hire only Republicans. The not-so-subtle implication was that hold-outs would be cut out of future legislative bonanzas. “We’re just following the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends,” DeLay once told The Washington Post.
Finally, DeLay installed his own henchmen at the top of this lobbying infrastructure. As my colleague John B. Judis reported in June, roughly 30 alumni of Team DeLay have ascended to top lobbying positions since the late ‘90s.
The result was that, by the time the Republicans controlled all three branches of government following the 2002 election, DeLay had transformed K Street into an extension of the House leadership.
Prior to the mid-’90s , K Street lobbyists looked out mostly for their narrow interests. DeLay arranged it so that lobbyists could be dispatched to twist congressional arms in support of legislation even when the business interests they represent don’t stand to benefit. And the best part of all is that the it lobbyists actually paid for this privilege. Some might object that this is an unfair standard by which to compare poor Duke Cunningham.
We can’t all be as innovative—some might even say revolutionary—as Tom DeLay. (Certainly not the Dukester, whose other big project was a Web venture called Top Gun Enterprises, which sold knives displaying congressional seals, perhaps illegally.) But the beauty of DeLay’s brand of corruption is that you don’t have to be the guy who thought it up to get in on the action
A few months ago, the Post reported that House Majority Whip Roy Blunt had so successfully emulated his mentor that his political machine had ~begun to rival “De Lay Inc.’ “ in reach. Other DeLay protégés have grown similarly powerful.
Others might object that it’s all fine and good to set up a DeLay-style operation if all you want is power. But what if you’re after material comforts’? In that
case, don’t you need to resort to (the alleged) Cunningham-style shenanigans?
Wrong again! The beauty of a big political machine is that it takes lots of people to make it hum.
And, as Nicholas Confessore has pointed out in The Washington Monthly, the beauty of building it outside the government is that you can hire all the friends and family members you want without attracting much scrutiny. DeLay’s wife has been an employee of the Alexander Strategy Group, the powerful lobbying firm run by former DeLay aide Ed Buckham. She and her daughter have together been paid more than $500,000 by DeLay’s political action and campaign committees since 2001 .The Dukester managed to get his home raided by FBI agents over a similar amount of money.
Even so, a skeptical Cunningham might complain that DeLay has lately found himself in some legal trouble of his own. This is true enough. But it’s worth pointing out that, if DeLay loses his job, it won’t be because of the machine he has built. It will be thanks to a handful of smaller offenses, such as allowing a lobbyist to pay for his overseas travel—offenses more in line with ... Duke Cunningham’s.
How to explain these little perversities? How? “Let’s see----The answer has to do with the press. Most news organizations are profoundly uncomfortable making subjective judgments, however obvious.
Instead, the preoccupation is with small, easily provable allegations. When it comes to political discourse, as my colleague Jonathan Chait has pointed out, the result is that politicians get nailed for tiny embellishments but get away with statements that are technically true but spectacularly dishonest, such as George W . Bush’s claims about the size of his 2001 tax cut. Likewise with corruption, where the press practices a kind of literalism that dwells on what is officially illegal or improper (like an affair with an intern) while ignoring behavior that is technically OK but ethically obscene.
Don’t misunderstand mc: Duke Cunningham deserves every bit of scorn he gets. But it only took a month to run him out of town once his dealings came to light. We’ve known about DeLay’s for ove r a decade.----- That’s about nine years and eleven months too long.
THE NEW REPUBLIC Magazine
Augus t 1, 2005 (Pg. 6)
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